Analytic Quality Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2004-17, Analytic Quality Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 3 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2004–2017.


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Informal learning

core definition

Informal learning is:

1. learning that derives from activities external to a structured learning context.

2. unstructured learning within a structured learning environment.

explanatory context

Informal learning (1) is part of lifelong learning.  Informal learning is not normally credited but some attempts are made to take account of it, specifically by recognising informal learning, or by, for example, accrediting prior experiential learning (APEL).

Informal learning (2) is the learning that comes from being in a learning situation but which is outside the formal learning and teaching settings, including learning from casual conversations over coffee and use of new technologies to access information.

Informl learning is differentiated from non-formal learning in some contexts.

analytical review

AEC (2004) defines informal learning as:

Learning resulting from daily life activities related to work, family or leisure. It is not structured (in terms of learning objectives, etc) and typically does not lead to certification.


The Victoria Qualifications Authority (VQA, 2004) Learning Australia: Report on the recognition of informal learning, states that:

Informal learning refers to personal and employment capacity building that occurs outside the formal recognition system. In Victoria, this is any learning that does not lead directly to either a full qualification or a credit towards a qualificationÅc


The Lower Hudson Regional Information Center (LHRIC, 2001) notes:

What is Informal Learning? We hear this term quite often now. It refers in business to water cooler learning or informal learning in conversation. It can also mean the learning that comes from interacting with others and asking questions in a digital medium like a discussion board or chat area. More projects are completed now via informal collaboration media than in the formal meeting arena. We in education must be aware of these trends.


The PROTEIN Poject (undated) website, drawing on a source it describes as 'A Memorandum on Lifelong Learning, European Commission, Unit E-3', states:

Informal learning is a natural accompaniment to everyday life. Unlike formal and non--formal learning, informal learning is not necessarily intentional learning, and so may well not be recognised even by individuals themselves as contributing to their knowledge and skills.

Smith (1999, 2008) states:

Informal learning—an administrative concept
We can begin to see some of the problems associated with the term 'informal learning' as soon as we glance at the definitions offered. For example, Veronica McGivney [1999] used the following in her study. Informal learning is:

Learning that takes place outside a dedicated learning environment and which arises from the activities and interests of individuals and groups, but which may not be recognised as learning.
Non course-based learning activities (which might include discussion, talks or presentations, information, advice and guidance) provided or facilitated in response to expressed interests and needs by people from a range of sectors and organizations (health, housing, social services, employment services, education and training services, guidance services).
Planned and structured learning such as short courses organized in response to identified interests and needs but delivered in flexible and informal ways and in informal community settings.

Margaret Dale and John Bell (1999) define informal learning somewhat more narrowly for their purposes as:

Learning which takes place in the work context, relates to an individual's performance of their job and/or their employability, and which is not formally organized into a programme or curriculum by the employer. It may be recognized by the different parties involved, and may or may not be specifically encouraged.

The central and defining feature of informal learning in this view is contextor more accurately administrative setting and sponsorship. Crudely, learning that takes place in dedicated educational institutions such as schools is seen as formal, that which occurs beyond the school walls as 'informal'. Coombs and Ahmed used a similar distinction with regard to education. In their view, informal education is:

...the lifelong process by which every individual acquires and accumulates knowledge, skills, attitudes and insights from daily experiences and exposure to the environmentat home, at work, at play: from the example and attitude of families and friends; from travel, reading newspapers and books; or by listening to the radio or viewing films or television. Generally informal education is unorganized, unsystematic and even unintentional at times, yet accounts for the great bulk of any person's total lifetime learningincluding that of a highly 'schooled' person. (Coombs and Ahmed 1974: 8)

We can see the similarities here with the above discussion of 'informal learning'. Significantly, it carries with it many of the same problems. Informal education is set against non-formal educationorganized educational activity outside formal systems; and formal educationthe hierarchically structured, chronologically graded 'education system'. The distinction made is largely administrative. Formal education is linked with schools and training institutions; non-formal with community groups and other organizations; and informal covers what is left, e.g. interactions with friends, family and work colleagues.

associated issues

There is an organisation called informal learning that states:

Informal Learning is a 'not for profit' organisation based and rooted within in the Agbrigg / Belle Vue area of Wakefield. Drawing on many years of experience working in the Third Sector and with children and young people, we work across Yorkshire & Humber and have links throughout the UK through strong affiliations to the Rank Foundation, Green Pastures Housing and the YMCA George Williams College in London. (Informal Learning, 2010)

related areas

See also

formal learning

non-formal learning



Association europeenne des conservatoires [Academies de musique et musikhochschulen] (AEC), 2004, Glossary of terms used in relation to the Bologna Declaration, accessed September 2004. Not available at this address 31 January 2011.

Coombs, P. H. and M. Ahmed, 1974, Attacking Rural Poverty. How non-formal education can help, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Dale, M. and Bell, J., 1999, Informal Learning in the Workplace. DfEE Research Report 134, London: Department for Education and Employment.

Informal Learning, 2010, Welcome to Informal Learning, available at, accessed 17 July 2012, site still available 3 January 2017, wording has changed.

Lower Hudson Regional Information Center (LHRIC), What is Informal Learning?, updated 13 July 2001, not available 17 January 2012.

McGiveney, V., 1999, Informal Learning in the Community. A trigger for change and development, Leicester: NIACE.

PROTEIN Project , undated, Definition of formal, non-formal and informal learning available at, accessed 18 July 2012, page not available 3 January 2017.

Smith, M.K., 1999, 2008, 'Informal learning', the encyclopaedia of informal education, available at, acccessed 17 July 2012, still available 3 January 2017.

Victoria Qualifications Authority (VQA), 2004, Learning Australia: Report on the recognition of informal learning, January, updated 14 October, 2004, not available 17 January 2012.

copyright Lee Harvey 2004–2017

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